anxiety season

So Bill Simmons is leaving ESPN at last, and for good reason it’s spooking the herd a little bit. Grantland is what it is– it’s a bloated site, but bloated with a lot of good writers who deserve work, which is almost perfectly designed to be not my slice of bread, given the aggressively upper-middle-browness of it. Like somebody told me recently, the online writing biz is kind of trying to fight an oversupply problem with more and more supply. Grantland was a pioneer in the giant payroll thing. Which, as someone who doesn’t have to worry about Disney’s bottom line, shouldn’t matter to me. But if you work for them I can get being anxious about whether the spigot stays on when it doesn’t have the partial intent of keeping Simmons on the farm.

As I’ve said many times, the problems with online writing are structural issues that compel most people in the industry to do a lot of work that they don’t enjoy doing and don’t think is good. Many of them also get to do enough of what they like that it’s a good deal for them; a lot of being a pro writer online has to do with how you handle the daily up and down of good work vs bad. I do think that recent events have forced a lot of smart people to conclude that the trend is not encouraging. I’m so constitutionally cranky that it’s hard for me to take my own pessimism  seriously, but the structural issues look not so good.

Anybody with structural politics has to grapple with the degree to which you can fairly blame those within those systems. The guy who breaks into your car high on meth is certainly dealing with a lot of stuff from up top, probably including the class structure of our system. At the same time a lot of people from his same class don’t break into your car, and you can feel free to find him an asshole for doing so. Same thing with aggregation: don’t hate the player, hate the game, but feel free to call garbage garbage. Just understand that if you don’t actually pay real dollars to real publishers you are yourself the most important cog in the click farming machine.

The bigger issue is something I’ve written about many times: that you and I live in a culture that thinks its pitiable to work in a job that lacks intellectual or artistic fulfillment, but which relentlessly mocks people who try to make it into the jobs that do. Someone who files TPS reports all day is a sad drone; someone who goes to grad school, writes a screenplay, or tries to break into acting is pathetic, pretentious, and bound for failure. We have steadily erased the unhealthy American ideal of Career-As-Self and white picket fences, but we haven’t replaced them with anything that most people can do. We just come up with more ways that you can be a loser. We’re best at that.

I actually think Grantland staff will be fine for awhile, as the site now has an entirely different ulterior reason for existing: spite. John Skipper clearly detests Simmons; folding Grantland soon after his departure would look too much like an indication of Simmons’s indispensability. And as someone who likes it when people can get paid to think and write about stuff, that’s good for me, even if I’m not big for Grantland itself. In the long term, well, it’s cloudy for all of us. And have I mentioned that I’m on the job market myself?

10 Comments

  1. “The chief cause of false writing is economic. Many writers need or want money. These writers could be cured by an application of bank notes.” (Ezra Pound)

    I sometimes feel that way about my own writing, actually. If some some latter-day Huey Long should come along and find a workable way to get those who own it to “share the wealth”, then I would pack in all my aesthetic, epistemic and ethical literary projects, and start doing some useful work in the fields, or repairing the bridges, or helping old ladies across the street.

    William Carlos Williams dismissed critics who (around 1944) were saying that “after socialism has been achieved it’s likely there’ll be no further use for poetry”. I doubt that, too. Socialism isn’t actually the answer. But I have been able to imagine a pretty simple utopia, after the achievement of which there would be no further use for MY poetry. It’s called unconditional basic income.

  2. please forgive my cursory search for one, but do you have a mechanism by which i can pay you a subscription fee?

    1. I do occasional fundraisers and have an Amazon wish list. Let me get back to you with something more concrete.

  3. “…you and I live in a culture that thinks its pitiable to work in a job that lacks intellectual or artistic fulfillment, but which relentlessly mocks people who try to make it into the jobs that do.”

    Crabs in a bucket comes to mind. Beyond that, I suspect that what Americans really admire is wealth. Get wealthy doing just about anything and many Americans will praise and idolize you. Everyone one else is treated like a sucker, or a loser whose failure is the result of their own shortcomings. I’m reminded of that running shtick on ‘American Idol’ where we get to laugh at the ‘deluded wannabes.’

  4. If you look at the 2008 crash, we had huge amounts of worthless loans floating around the system, which made a few people very rich, led to lots of houses being built, and propped up lots of little people who lost their asses when it all went under.

    Social media-fueled online writing is nowhere *close* to that scale when it comes to the dollars. But I wonder whether it’s headed for a crunch of its own. You noted the oversupply, which is perceptive, but I’m also curious about how much of the industry’s presumed value is over-stated or outright fake (bots) and whether the big companies like Disney might begin feeling like it’s time to start pulling the plug.

    1. yea i feel u on this. i recently wrote for some local content farm and realized they would publish literally anything i wrote for 35$ a piece, regardless of length, regardless of whether the content was almost entirely quoted yelp reviews. i cranked out like 20 of these things then stopped cause it was lame. anyway they gave writers access to the metrics recently and i looked at mine, i was getting like twice as many shares as actual page views and that was wildly confusing. also, the “sponsored content” i wrote suspiciously got like 5x-10x as much traffic as regular stories. this company is being praised as like, an impactful startup in our community.

      1. “i was getting like twice as many shares as actual page views and that was wildly confusing”

        This is a dark secret that few people fully understand. I learned it a while ago from an evil genius consultant several years younger than me. The secret is this: much online content is not meant to be read, and it is not really aimed at the ostensible readers. It is meant for the headline and teaser to be shared on social media for the “reader’s” “friends,” and it is for display/signalling purposes only.

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